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Everyone’s heard that spices don’t last forever, but let’s be honest, those precious powders in tiny glass containers are far from cheap, and even less so if you’re prioritizing organic and fair trade (as you should, more on that later). So is it imperative you pay close attention to those ever-elusive expiration dates on spices?
How much mind should you pay when flipping over that smoked paprika you could’ve sworn you just bought only to discover its best before date was – gasp! – 8 months ago?! We spoke to Meredith Chen, senior food scientist on the R&D team for Simply Organic spices about how much expiration dates on spices matter, when to choose whole spices versus ground, tips for sourcing the best spices and herbs and storage tips that will make these coveted flavor infusers stay potent for longer.
What does little printed date really mean when it comes to expiration dates on spices?
If you cook relatively often, you’ve likely racked up a decent spice collection of some frequently used spices like cumin and cinnamon, and perhaps some outliers you may not even remember purchasing in the first place (we’re looking at you cream of tartar). So how imperative is it that you take a regular inventory of your spice drawer and toss what’s passed those sneaky “best by” dates? “It’s less about it expiring than it is about the flavor potency fading over time,” says Chen. The “best by” date reflects the span of time in which the supplier guarantees the very best quality. In other words, the time range should reflect the time in which the spice is as “good as new”, versus starting to age. The flavor fades over time and if it’s been stored close to moisture, it may become more difficult to scoop or shake out because of caking.
But will you get sick from not diligently obeying the expiration dates on spices? Luckily, there’s no need to worry about that. Your biggest fear should be turning out a depressingly bland meal if your spice rack hasn’t been refreshed since you got it…like when you moved away for college or was gifted one at your wedding shower.
But what if you can’t spot the “best by” date on the bottle? Give it a good sniff, Chen says. If you have to try very hard to detect aroma, it’s time to compost it. If you can’t remember how many moves it’s been through with you, it’s time to compost it. Writing the date on the container when you put it away is a helpful trick for maintaining your spice inventory. And the rule of thumb is three to four years for whole spices and one to two years for ground spices and dried herbs. And as mentioned, yes, compost is the very best way to dispose of your ancient spices.
If you’re really reluctant to toss a like-new bottle even if you know it’s been well over two years, there are a couple of tactics worth trying. First, you could try gently toasting them in a low-heat pan. The other option is you can just use more overall (the latter works best with spices rather than dried green herbs).
When to choose whole spices over ground
When deciding between purchasing whole spices or ground, there are a few things to consider. Whole spices have a much longer shelf life, by roughly one to three years, depending on the spice. Whole nutmeg vs. ground nutmeg are a great example of this. “I highly recommend comparing freshly grated nutmeg to ground nutmeg from the spice cupboard!,” says Chen. “The whole spice is more protected from environmental changes and the essential oils are “trapped” inside, thus their flavor fades slower.”
Aside from shelf length and prolonging potency, your time commitment and effort threshold should be taken into consideration. Whether you choose whole or ground is completely up to you but if you have the time, grinding from whole can be much more potent and will add even more depth to your dish. But if having whole spices in your cupboard means you’re less likely to use them because of the inconvenience, and you’re not sure how often you’ll be up for grinding whole spices down while you cook, then opt for ground. If you’re just getting started in the world of whole spices, start whole peppercorns and whole nutmeg. Whole nutmeg is gumball-sized and can be grated on a small-holed grater or rasp. Whole black pepper comes in grinder bottles these days, so that’s an easy first foray but both spices are a great way to test and experience the flavor difference first hand before expanding your whole-spice horizons.
If you’re building out your first proper spice rack, Chen says the following spices are the nonnegotiable top five: Black pepper, paprika/smoked paprika, cinnamon, turmeric and cumin. And after that, when you’re ready to expand, add ginger/cardamom/clove/nutmeg, chili pepper (mild red or cayenne), rosemary/thyme/sage/oregano to your collection. (Items with a slash mean pick one of the bunch, according to your personal tastes).
Sourcing and storing your spices
A well-stocked spice cabinet doesn’t only result in full-flavor meals but is also a boon to good health for their ability to deliver impressive amounts of antioxidants but also to add a world of flavor without a ton of salt or sugar.
So, how do you go about selecting your spice manufacturer and how should you organize and store your spices for efficient cooking and to extend their shelf life? If you can, always source from reputable companies who ensure quality and care at each step of the process. If you’re on a tight budget and can’t exactly splurge on top-shelf quality this time around, the main difference you can expect between high-quality spices and bargain brands is the potency of the essential oils in the spices. High-quality spices will be more potent to begin with, so they bring more flavor to the table. Other things that separate a budget brand from a high-quality brand is that reputable companies should have a reputation for higher safety standards, better worker welfare and sustainable methods, in addition to excellent quality control.
When it comes time to decide how much you need, Chen says to only buy according to what you use. “I highly recommend looking at bulk bins for one-offs, or just skip the spice if you’re unsure you’ll make that recipe again. Otherwise, mini bottles are a great way to try out new spices without committing to a larger quantity.”
When it comes to storing, store at room temperature in airtight containers; away from moisture or strong heat and always out of direct sunlight. And there are many ways you can choose to organize your spice cabinet, that will often depend on your particular cooking style. Organize by use or flavor. Bundle frequently-used spices together for easy access during meal prep. Or another example is if you do a lot of baking, then grouping go-to spices like cinnamon & nutmeg. Baking spices, spice blends, whole spices, herbs, core spices.
See also: Sneak More Super into Your Supper